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Silent Film Origins Essay

It has been eighty years since the first film with sound dazzled audiences.  Before that, silent movies ruled the box office and the imaginations of filmgoers.  Starting from short experimental films created by the pioneers that developed much of the technology and many of the techniques that would come to dominate the film industry, silent films grew into a massive industry and viable art form.  Like all great innovations, silent film was replaced in time, but the artistry and legacy can be felt to this day.The creation of movies owes a debt to many men, including American geniuses George Eastman, who developed the type of film that would be used for film, and Thomas Edison, who would help develop the means to create and play films.  With his assistant W.K.L Dickson, they built a studio on the grounds of Edison’s laboratories in New Jersey, to produce films for their Kinetoscope.  The Black Maria was ready for film production at the end of January of 1893 (“An Introduction to Early Cinema,” 2006).  In October of 1894, Edison’s Kinetoscope made its debut in London. The parlor which played host these machines did remarkably well and the market for movies appeared to be a safe bet.  (2006)The Lumière family was the biggest manufacturer of photographic plates in Europe.  In 1894, a local kinetoscope exhibitor asked brothers Louis and Auguste to make films which were cheaper than the ones sold by Edison.  Louis and Auguste designed a camera that served as both a recording and a projecting device.  They called it the Cinématographe, which used flexible film cut into 35mm wide strips and an intermittent mechanism modeled on the sewing machine.  The camera shot films at sixteen frames per second (rather than the forty six which Edison used), this became the standard film rate for much of silent screen era (2006).  In 1895, the first film shot with the Cinématographe camera was shown in a Paris café in a twenty-five minute program that featured common scenes of life.  It instantly created a sensation and the drive to create films began in earnest.  The majority of the silent film era would be marked by the competitive drive of American and European filmmakers who would try to outdo each other in terms of technological advancement and artistic expression.Silent Film TechniquesShowings of silent films almost always featured live music, starting with the pianist at the first public projection of movies shown by the Lumière Brothers in Paris.  From the beginning, music was recognized as essential, contributing to the atmosphere and giving the audience vital emotional cues.  Small town and neighborhood movie theaters usually had a pianist.  From the mid-teens onward, large city theaters tended to have organists or entire orchestras.  Massive theatrical organs such as the famous “mighty Wurlitzer” could simulate some orchestral sounds along with a number of sound effects. The scores for silent films were often more or less improvised early in the medium’s history, but as movies grew longer, pieces were composed specifically for films (“Silent Film,” 2007).Since silent films had no synchronized sound for dialogue, onscreen intertitles were used to narrate story points, present key dialogue and sometimes even comment on the action for the cinema audience.  Intertitles often became graphic elements themselves, featuring illustrations or abstract decorations that commented on the action of the film or enhanced its atmosphere (“Silent Film,” 2007).Because of the lack of sound, acting in silent films was far more dramatic than that of later talkies.  Due in part to many of the early actors’ experience in theater, the medium of silent film required a great emphasis on body language and facial expression so the audience could better understand what an actor was feeling and portraying on screen.  Like intertitles, the dramatic acting style in silent film was to make up for the lack of dialogue, and became a mainstay in silent films.American Silent FilmFor the first twenty years of motion picture history most silent films were short–only a few minutes in length.  Edison created films such as “The Kiss” in 1896, which simply showed a couple kissing.  In 1903, he produced “Pipe Dreams” which incorporated the use of special effects, showing a woman smoking a cigarette while holding a miniature man in her hand (Giannetti & Eyman, 1991, p. 9).  These early special effects dazzled audiences and helped further the popularity of film.  Nickelodeons popped up all over America, as people were charged a nickel to view the latest films.  The same year Edison made Pipe Dreams, he also produced Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1991, p. 13).  This first action-adventure movie was still only a short film, but would go on to become the most famous film produced by Edison, incorporating dramatic camera techniques and innovative editing.  It would remain the most famous American movie for the next ten years, when silent films reached greater complexity and length in the early 1910’s.A significant realization of the potential for film as art occured with the appearance of D. W. Griffith’s 1915 full-length epic Birth of a Nation.   In this film Griffith utilized crosscutting (parallel editing) effectively, particularly at the climax, when a number of editing tracks play off one another (1991, p. 30).  He also portrayed battle scenes magnificently, with action in one set of shots moving from left to right, while action in another set of shots moves from right to left.  Despite controversy surrounding Griffith’s overt racism in the film, his work is credited as being the first great American film, and Griffith its first great director.  In the next few years, Griffith would go on to make a number of silent epics including Intolerance in 1916, Broken Blossoms in 1919, and Way Down East in 1920 (1991, p. 32).The 1920’s marked the height of American silent moviemaking and by the end of the decade, it also marked the death of silent film.  Stars like Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton dazzled audiences with their comedic styles.  Clara Bow became the “It” girl, changing the perceptions of femininity and bringing the flapper ideals to popular culture.  The 1922 film Nanook of the North, directed by Robert Flaherty was the first great achievement of documentary film (1991, p. 68).  Prolific directors like Frank Capra, William Wellman, and Eric Von Stroheim began making films, and the visual quality of moviemaking was enhanced in movies like Sunrise, an American film directed by the foreign born F. W. Murnau.European Silent FilmIn 1902, Georges Méliès produced “Voyage to the Moon,” a fifteen minute epic fantasy parodying the writings of Jules Verne and HG Wells.  The film used innovative special effect techniques and introduced color to the screen through hand-painting and tinting.  From this earliest effort, it was apparent that European filmmakers would rival and often surpass the achievements of their American counterparts (Yahnke, 1996).In Russia, Sergei Eisenstein’s contribution to the development of silent cinema rested primarily in his theory of editing, or montage, which focused on the collision of opposites in order to create a new entity (1996).  One of the greatest achievements in editing is his film Potemkin made in 1925, which features the master use of intercutting for dramatic effect.In Germany, directors of silent films began experimentation with unusual camera angles and complex stage settings, pushing the art of moviemaking into another realm of artistry.  The nightmare-like Nosferatu made by F. W. Murnau in 1919, is visually striking.  Murnau is also credited with perfecting the use of visual language in his 1924 film The Last Laugh, about a lonely old man who is ridiculed by others.  Few intertitles are used in the film because Murnau is able to communicate meaning by virtue of well-placed visual cues (Yanhke, 1996).  Fellow German Fritz Lang also created stark and beautiful films that took on topics such as murder and humanity’s march towards a bleak future.  One of the greatest visual achievements of the silent ear was his masterpiece Metropolis, which was unrivaled in its scope and style.  The futuristic world Lang created is still celebrated eighty years after its creation.  Like Murnau, he would also go to America to continue his success.ConclusionAfter the success of the Jazz Singer in 1927, the time of silent film was up.  Few silent films were made in the 1930s, with the exception of Charlie Chaplin, whose character of the Tramp perfected expressive physical moves in many short films in the 1910s and 1920s.  When the silent era ended, Chaplin refused to go along with sound, making silent movies well into the 1930s.  Despite Chaplin’s reverence for the format that made him a worldwide star, even he eventually abandoned silent film for talkies.  The silent film era quietly faded into history, but the legacy of the films produced live on to this day.

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